The parable in this week’s reading is about a landowner who rented out his vineyard to other farmers. The crowds around Jesus would have heard this parable differently than the elites and powerful. Jesus’ society had no middle class. There were only the rich and those struggling to scratch out an existence in one difficult way or another. There were only the haves and the have nots. Only the upper class and the lower class, and only a few belonging to the upper class aristocracy were connected to the temple state in Jerusalem.
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(Read this series from its beginning here.)
The elites would have seen themselves in the parables as the farmers renting the vineyard from the landowner who was away. The people would have viewed themselves as the indentured workers who daily witnessed the elites enriching themselves with worker exploitation. And with the elites becoming so attached to their enrichment at the expense of the masses, the crowd would have perceived the beaten, killed, and stoned vineyard servants in the parable as symbols of the Hebrew prophets. There is precedent for this imagery. Consider Isaiah 5:1-7:
“I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit. Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? Now I will tell you what I am going to do to my vineyard: I will take away its hedge, and it will be destroyed; I will break down its wall, and it will be trampled. I will make it a wasteland, neither pruned nor cultivated, and briers and thorns will grow there. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.” The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the nation of Israel, and the people of Judah are the vines he delighted in. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.”
There are differences between Isaiah’s use of the vineyard imagery and Matthew’s. In Isaiah the vineyard is destroyed, whereas in Matthew the vineyard is taken away and given to others. In Isaiah the vineyard represents the nation of Israel; in Matthew it represents “the Kingdom,” which is Jesus’ vision for a just, inclusive, compassionate human community. There are also similarities between Isaiah and Matthew: the vineyard owner comes to the vineyard looking for justice and finds only exploitation, marginalization, oppression, and bloodshed.
Let’s now talk about what the kingdom being taken away and given to others would have meant.
First—and this is very important—this parable is not about the Kingdom being taken away from the Jewish people and given to Christians. We’ll consider what it is about, next.
(Read Part 3)